Will Trump's Presidency Overturn the Fragile Peace in Russia's Backyard?

U.S. Marines demonstrate their firepower on the range with M240 and .50 caliber machine guns during Exercise Agile Spirit in Georgia. DVIDSHUB/Public domain

The next U.S. administration should be careful with Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Numerous allegations resulted in the “Azerbaijan Democracy Act,” a bill introduced in 2015. The draft law would impose a ban on entry by the entire leadership of the country, including all members of their families, starting with Aliyev and including the prime Minister, members of the presidential administration, security officers and judges. Now the bill is under consideration by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and, if approved, it will be put forward for a vote.

After the Maidan protests in Ukraine, President Aliyev, afraid of political instability, decided to become closer with Russia. Overall, while there is a deep crisis in U.S.-Azerbaijani relations, those between Baku and Moscow are developing in all directions. However, Azerbaijan hopes that with the new U.S. president, relations with the United States will return to their past heights. Many Azerbaijani experts believe that the new administration will build a dialogue with Azerbaijan on the basis of pragmatic interests (e.g., oil and energy logistics), without interfering in internal political processes. If we project Trump’s foreign-policy rhetoric on Azerbaijan, it can be assumed that over the next four years the United States will be less interested in human-rights issues in that country.

Compared with Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia does not represent any geopolitical, economic and energy interests for the United States. The basis for bilateral relations between Washington and Yerevan is a particular perception of Armenia and the Armenian people. The special relationship between the American and Armenian peoples are rooted in deep history. President Woodrow Wilson was the arbiter of the Armenian-Turkish territorial dispute, and Congress removed immigration barriers for Armenians escaping the genocide of 1915–23. In addition, the Armenian Apostolic Christian tradition has much in common with American Protestantism. Some in America cite the Armenians as the first Christian nation, which for centuries has defending its faith in clashes with the surrounding Islamic world. Over time, representatives of the Armenian community have deeply integrated into the sociopolitical life of the United States, forming influential lobbying institutions at the local and federal levels.

Armenian lobbying has played a significant role in shaping U.S. foreign policy towards Armenia. Thus, Yerevan has become the second recipient of U.S. assistance per capita, after Israel. In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Washington’s political sympathies are also on the Armenian side. This attitude resulted in the smooth adoption of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which prohibits military assistance to Azerbaijan due to the illegal blockade of the Armenian border. Moreover, since 1994, Congress has allocated financial assistance to the legally unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Various priorities and circumstances prevented the United States and Armenia from deepening their bilateral dialogue. Washington was interested in strengthening ties with Turkey—a NATO ally—and in Caspian oil. In turn, Yerevan was forced to move closer to Russia and Iran because of the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades. Despite this, not only do the United States and Armenia retain the positive dynamic in their relationship, but also find new areas for cooperation.

Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union did not prevent the United States and Armenia from signing trade and investment agreements and creating the U.S.-Armenian Council for Trade and Investment. Besides that, Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) does not prevent Yerevan from developing cooperation with NATO. Armenian soldiers and officers participate in peacekeeping operations in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Armenian soldiers, together with NATO members and partners, regularly take part in winter and summer mountain training courses in the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Cooperation with NATO allows Armenia not only to improve its armed forces, but also to devalue efforts by Turkey and Azerbaijan to use the alliance’s instruments against Armenia.

Trump’s presidency may affect U.S.-Armenian relations in various ways. Today, the Armenian side is strongly dependent on the U.S. position in dealing with the Karabakh issue. Over the last twenty years, the United States has maintained balance between pro-Armenian and pro-Azerbaijani sides in the framework of the Minsk Group. The United States became more active when Russia promoted pro-Armenian initiatives, and vice versa. At the same time, France, as the third permanent member of the Minsk Group, supported the United States’ pro-Armenian position and was neutral in case of Russia’s pro-Armenian views. Now, Moscow has adopted a more pro-Azerbaijani position, and if it manages to persuade Washington to support its plan for resolving the conflict, Yerevan will be in a tough situation. Such a scenario is quite possible, if the new administration makes a bet on Azerbaijan, as it was during the presidency of George W. Bush. On this basis, we should expect a serious fight between pro-Armenian and pro-Azerbaijani oil lobbyists in Washington. The latter scenario is also unfavorable for Armenia, as it implies passivity and indifference of the United States to Armenia and Karabakh.

If Trump’s administration does not pay proper attention to this issue, Russia will finally monopolize the negotiation process.

Areg Galstyan, PhD, is a regular contributor to Russia in Global Affairs and Forbes and head of the American Studies Research Centre (Russia).